Trees: Bringing It All Together

Gin Getz
24 Min Read

This is about trees.  I don’t care if you’re a tree hugger or if you log for a living, few of us do not need, appreciate and value our trees.  For those of us who homestead, the need for and value of our trees are clear and simple, right in front of us, part of our homes, part of our lives every single day.  From our trees, we build our homes, our stock fences, our garden beds.  From our trees, we heat our home, cook our food, dry our clothes near the fire at night.

As homesteaders, our trees provide for us.  As homesteaders, we too, need to consider our responsibility to the trees if we are to commit to the land.  This does not mean avoiding harvesting our own wood, or refraining from using wood products.  But it does mean responsibly managing our backyard woodlot.  And the easiest way to begin is to plant trees.

Rather than just taking from our own land, we can give back at the same time. We can plant trees.  Now.  What are we waiting for?  Trees take longer to grow than your garden, and we all find time to dig a garden.  Yet consider this: the trees will last longer and will contribute more to those coming after you, even add more value, both monetarily and intrinsically, to your land than a few tomato plants.

I look around today and see many modern would- or could-be homesteads, small subdivision lots, with a house smack dab in the middle, a garden dug in the back, and nothing else around except the neighbor’s fence.  Do they not consider their land a homestead?  Or do they just not want to commit to and care for their land?

Yes, you can be a modern homesteader on 10 acres.  Or 5 acres.  Even one acre.  If, and that’s the key, if… if you act like a homesteader.  Treat your land like a homesteader would.  And you can homestead on .5 acres or even in an apartment with a sunny window.  Time and space are no excuse.  The spirit of the homesteader can come through even in the smallest of spaces.  Here, let’s take a quick look through our country’s history of homesteaders to find some specifics about the integral relationship between homesteaders and trees.

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law The Homestead Act.  This Act enabled individuals to file for a quarter section (160 acres) of free land.  The land was theirs at the end of five years if they had built a house on it, dug a well, cultivated 10 acres, fenced part of the property, and actually lived there.  All this for an $18 filing fee.

Cultivating those 10 acres of land specifically involved breaking the land, or plowing; then planting.  Crops or trees.  Trees were the more common and practical choice for part or all of the fulfillment.  Think about it: if you had to cultivate 10 acres out on the plains, with hand or horsepower, would you plant a 10-acre garden, or would you choose trees?  You can imagine why trees where the choice to cultivate for our original homesteaders.

To further encourage the cultivation of trees for homesteaders, The Timber Culture Act was passed in 1873, giving individuals the right to claim 160 acres of additional land by planting and successfully cultivating 40 acres of trees and attending them for 10 years.  Later this requirement was reduced to 10 acres and 8 years of care.  Mind you, this Act was not as successful either for the encouragement of development by our government, nor for the humble homesteader.  For most settlers in the arid plains, succeeding even at the reduced levels was a practical impossibility, due to the lack of water.

However, in any case, we see that the value of trees for the homesteader is nothing new.  Although historically, the cultivation of trees is a part of what define us as homesteaders, we should not need laws and regulations to point this out; only common sense.

Without our trees, we can not live on the land.  We should learn from the Vikings, who in the 9th century settled in Iceland, and within 300 years, destroyed all their trees.  No more trees means no heat, no cooking… and thus, the end of that civilization there.  They actually starved themselves out of a once rich and forested land.  I know this is a pretty harsh picture to paint of the mismanagement that can occur with woodlots, but it’s a good one to get the point across.  At the very least, we can use this knowledge to remind us to value the trees we do have, and to manage them for the future wisely.

I’m no historian, though these facts are readily available on the internet.  I’m a homesteader, that’s where my focus here should be… on our mountain, on our trees.

I live the mountains, homestead in the mountains.  Here, as with all homesteads, we are closer to life, closer to death.  It is all around us, every day, a part of our breath, the beat of our heart, the view before us, the ground below our feet.  The trees are an integral part of our homestead, even here on our mountain that we call home, up at an elevation of nearly 10,000 and surrounded by forests.  Still, every tree is valued.  And for good reason.  Our life here, from our home to our heating to our cooking and more, is all dependant upon our trees.  I don’t want to just take, and leave my son and his children having to look further every year for harvestable timber.  Instead, for every tree we take, we plant a tree to give back to the land, to give to our children, and to give to the future of our mountain.  I know this can sound a bit sappy, but think about it.  I’m just being a homesteader.

It all comes together on a homestead.  It’s that big circle of life, played out every day.  With the seasons, the garden and livestock we raise, the work we do to survive, and the trees.  We give, we take, we balance out on a homestead.  And somewhere in that mix, everything all seems to come together.  The animals, the seasons, the trees… we can not separate one from all the rest on a homestead, can we?

Yesterday, a filly was found dead.  A two-year-old horse.  Where is the “right” in this?   We do not judge.  We have to accept, learn, move on, do better.  At the same day, we began to build a new foaling shed for our mare, Tres, who is due in about a month’s time.  This is what life is about on a homestead.  As you mourn the loss of one, you prepare for the birth of another.  One tree falls, another grows in its wake.

We were gathering materials from the junk piles; my husband, Bob, dragging them by snowmobile and stacking them on the snow in place where we will be building the foaling shed.  But we couldn’t build the shed under the threat of this huge Blue Spruce falling on it, and that tree was on its way down.  I have been watching the roots inch their way out of the ground over the past month or so, able to notice this as my archery target was leaning against the base of the tree, so I’d actually see the difference each week as I practiced with my longbow.  The past week was the worse, with the roots popping up above the ground, exposing fresh dirt underneath daily.  The tree was going soon.  If we let it fell on its own, we risked the possibility of it falling on our new shed.  At the least, it could damage two good trees next to it, or get caught up in them and be a real hazard.  The lean of the tree was so extreme that it seemed the most direct path was into the trees, but altering its fall could also land the giant tree on top of two tiny Spruce, each no more than a few years old, just popping above the snow level.  These trees are precious to us; life is hard enough up here.

Bob felled the big tree just right, clearing the neighboring trees and missing by inches the baby Spruce that will grow in place of the old big one.  The three of us worked together to clean up the branches, sorting some for a burn pile, others saved aside for small crafts projects.

Then Bob bucked the tree into lengths, and we found ourselves with three good sized logs.  These will be the start of a new log wall for making our cozy little homestead cabin just a little bit bigger.

And now we can go back to building that foaling shed for Tres.  See how it all just comes together sometimes?  Planning for the future, helping us live in the present, healing us of the past.  In our sadness, we still have to work to be done; we have a new foal on the way.  It may not be a cure, but it is an understanding, and then it all just becomes part of life, not good or bad, but just what it is, the way it has to be.  All the pieces of the puzzle fit together.  And despite the areas of darkness and sharp edges, the puzzle before us shows us a picture of a very beautiful world.

Beautiful, real, and yes, I admit, at times harsh.  Such is life on a homestead.  I don’t think any of us would trade it or plan to give it up, would we?

Last night the wind blew a fury around the mountain.  Several times I awoke with a start to check on the Old Grandfather

Tree.  The old spruce tree that my husband’s grandfather used to use to hang his saddle from, on one of the lower branches.  It’s the largest tree on our ranch, a big old Blue Spruce, gnarly from years of being used as a natural firewood storage shed and fence corner post.  Up in this tree, our son built himself a tree house years ago, far too high for me to visit.  Foals have slept under the shade of the tree in spring, and many a picnic under there in the summer.

But now, the old tree is leaning and on its way down.  Perhaps it’s the beetles.  Or the drought.  Or perhaps it’s just time, old age.  It is tired. With a clear path in which to fall, we are letting the old tree live out his life to the fullest, and enjoying having the tree there next to us for as long as possible.  Holding up the fence.  Shading the wood pile.

Today, the wind has calmed, and the gentle snow softly tickles the branches of Grandfather Tree, and all others throughout the mountain.  Perhaps it is the last of the spring snows.

I sit here in my cozy log cabin by my wood stove, and my thoughts turn once again toward the trees… the trees that provided for us to build our home, warm our cabin, fuel our cook stove, give us material for our fence, shade from the sun, protection from the wind… these are the trees from our land.  How much I have to be grateful for, not the least of which is the admiration of their beauty, now stark and grey and softly dusted with white in the pencil drawn landscape of this late spring storm.  The trees and I both await the leaves that soon will be emerging.

I’m not necessarily a tree hugger.  But I confess I have hugged a tree or two.  I value them.  And well I should.  They are valuable!  But I also use my trees.  First of all, for building.  We live in a log cabin.  We harvested our own logs.  From the trees on our property, we have fuel.  Living at 10,000 feet elevation as we do, and relying on a wood stove for heat, we go through a fair amount of firewood.  And with that, our home is cozy and warm, even when the outside temperatures fall to 20, 30 or even 40 below zero.  Every breakfast is cooked on the old-fashioned cook stove, which also is reliant on our wood source.  Our trees provide shelter, shade, windbreak, privacy… and yes, beauty.

But I confess, no fruit.  Not up at this elevation.  Try as I may (and I have for years), I can’t keep a fruit tree alive, let alone producing, when we’re lucky to have 5 or 6 weeks of frost-free “growing season” on a good year.  So for those of you living in lower elevations, as most folks are, don’t forget the fruit trees!

In any case, we sure value our trees.  Rightfully so.  Man has relied on trees since the day of fire.  Today, those who live along the river bottoms and find shade under the still thriving giant trees planted well over a hundred years ago, or who wander in the fields and pick the old fruit from the still producing old hardwood tree, or are lucky enough to move to a place loved and cared for enough where a full orchard or windbreak or woodlot has been planted and tended, we are reminded of the importance of trees, and the integral part of trees in the life of the homestead.

And yet, today we see subdivision after subdivision going in, without consideration for the value of trees.  Did they forget?  There are guest ranches near here, and as they were not “homesteads” the value of planting trees was never considered.  80 years or so later, those cabins still stick out like sore thumbs.  Imagine if they had planted one tree a year, even if just for the first 20 years or so. Instead, they send a message to the rest of us as we pass by:  We take from the land.  We don’t give back.  That is not the message I wish to send.

I am a homesteader, and in the pride of that name, I plant trees.  I live simple, strive to live off the land, and care for my land and my mountain.  I take what I need, and give back all I can.  I can plant trees.  I can prove my commitment to the land and mountain, and to my son and the future generations coming here after me.

Planting trees will not break the bank, I can pretty much promise you this.  Money should not be an excuse.  Consider your options, and budget accordingly.  Our state Forest Service has a good deal on 2-3-year-old native trees.  For $50, you can purchase 30.  I know it’s going to take a while for them to grow into something I can use, but that’s all part of our woodlot management plan.

This year, we are putting in a windbreak along the west side of our property, where the wind really gets going.  It may take 5-10 years before they are large enough to defer the wind, but I plan on still being around then.  Why not do it now?  If I had done it last year, I’d be one year closer.  We’ve got our first order in to be picked up April 16th.  Our ground will still be frozen, so we’ll have to heel these in for a month or so until we can break ground.

In our constant efforts to improve and care for our property, we have planted many a tree, transplanted all we could “relocate” from places we had to put in roads or buildings. (In my book, backhoes are a necessity for this – you can’t dig up a good size Spruce tree by hand in one season.) Not all have survived, but for those that have taken, we are so pleased to know we gave a second life to a tree otherwise doomed.  And at the same time, have new trees growing where once there was none.

Years ago, I lived and worked on another ranch where the landowner committed to planting 150 small trees every year.  What a great investment on his part, considering that he too responsibly harvested timber from his land, and in this way, ensured the longevity of his woodlot.  With a good tree planting tool to heel in each bare root stock, and a backpack strapped on backward full of baby trees, planting 150 trees took three of us one afternoon.

Others, with smaller parcels, can commit to planting one tree a year.  At your local nursery, this would probably cost you between $15 and $50, for a young but well-established tree.  If times are especially tough, pass on one year, and double up the next if you can.  With these larger nursery trees, though, the rewards are faster to see.

Commit to try.  Plant a tree.  Now.  Some may grow, some may die; such is the life of a tree.  Like anything and everything on the homestead.  We can try, we can care and give it the best start, but we can not completely control nor predict its path in life.

But we do have to try.  We do have to plant those trees.  We do have to share our labors with those who will come after us as we have been able to enjoy the shade, and shelter, the fruit, the beauty, and the forever needed fuel because of those who came before us.

There are long since many a homestead that has been abandoned, the dwelling and outbuildings returned to the ground, skeletal remains of the yards and corrals barely visible, but the trees still remain.  Here in the Rocky Mountains, we have the shade of the big old Cottonwood along the sides of the creeks and rivers and ditches to tell us stories of folks who had once called this place home.  Driving through Texas and Oklahoma and Nebraska, you can see where the drainages are from far away, and where the old homesteads once were:  the trees are big and full, like flags in the distance.  In California, I remember coming upon apple trees, old and twisted and gnarly but still producing, in odd far off locations.  When we look closely, we find evidence of the homestead that once was there.

For each and all of these old trees, we are thankful for those who came before us, those who had the foresight to share their labors, to care enough about the land, to care enough about the future.  And from these lessons, we remember our current obligations.  The trees we plant now are not only for us, for our children, and our children’s children, but for any who come after us.  What a beautiful gift to pass on.  Selfless and thoughtful, full of promise and provision.

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